On Monday, Feb. 7, the University of Connecticut distributed turbahs for Shia Muslim students to use at the Islamic Center of the University of Connecticut and the wellness and meditation space in Homer Babbidge Library, the two main prayer areas on campus for Muslim students. The turbahs – which are pieces of clay that many Shia Muslims use during prayer – were donations to the university and came directly from Iraq.
The next day, the Ahlul Bayt Student Association at UConn, an organization for Shia Muslim students, found out the turbahs distributed to ICUC had been vandalized and thrown out.
Although this was the first time turbahs were donated to the university, anti-Shia incidents have also occurred in the past, according to ABSA President Safina Bibi, an eighth-semester political science major.
“There’s been years of anti-Shia rhetoric that has occurred at the ICUC,” said Bibi. “I myself have not gone through it but I know alumni who have dealt with it. I’ve always heard stories about how the ICUC has not been welcoming to Shias.”
Shia and Sunni are two sects of Islam. Shias make up approximately 15% of the world’s Muslim population, with the majority 85% being Sunni, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
“We stand in solidarity with Shia Muslims on campus,” ABSA said in a statement Friday. “Although we cannot eradicate religious sectarianism on campus and beyond, we demand a formal apology and that the responsible individuals be held accountable for their actions.”
In the statement, ABSA also claimed that the ICUC board refused to allow turbahs to be kept at ICUC.
On Monday, Feb. 14, UConn’s Muslim Student Association addressed the incident, clarifying that the individuals responsible for vandalizing the turbahs at ICUC were neither students nor MSA members, nor were they affiliated with the ICUC board.
“The MSA strongly condemns the wrongful disposal of the turbahs,” the statement read.
“Regardless of the reasoning, that individual had no right to destroy the property of Shia students. After the recent Instagram post by ABSA, we understand people are incredibly upset and some of that anger is directed at the ICUC. We would like to stress that the ICUC board was not responsible for these actions and does not condone this behavior.”Statement by UConn’s Muslim Student Association
In the statement, MSA also said that neither MSA nor the ICUC board were informed that turbahs would be placed in ICUC, and that ICUC has a policy requiring that student organizations get approval before placing any items in the building.
“I don’t think we should be asking permission to put anything in [ICUC],” Bibi said. “The ICUC actually has anti-Shia books … so we figured if there’s already anti-Shia books in the ICUC, why would we ask about the turbahs if we already know the answer is going to be no.”
Bibi also said that since ICUC is a mosque, any items needed for prayer should be allowed there anyway.
“If there’s all these other accessories [at ICUC] that I don’t think [need to] get permission from ICUC, I figured [the turbahs] should have been allowed either way,” Bibi added.
In Monday’s statement, MSA also claimed that the ICUC board expressed apologies to ABSA, offering to pay for the turbahs and meet with them regarding their concerns.
“We set up a meeting with [the ICUC board] and they never got back to us,” said Bibi. “We have been trying but they’re the ones who are not reciprocating.”
In regard to the apology from the ICUC board that MSA spoke of, ABSA claims that it was more of an indirect message passed along by MSA.
“In [MSA’s] statement, they mentioned that ICUC apologized to us, but we never got a formal, direct apology,” said Nahaal Boluriaan, a sixth-semester marketing major and the digital media chair of ABSA. “It was just through MSA. They passed it along that they were in some way apologetic, but we never got that direct contact from ICUC.”
According to Boluriaan, the donation of turbahs came after several Shia students had asked to have them on campus.
“We had requests from students to have turbahs in the ICUC because we have a lot of Shia students,” said Boluriaan.
“[The turbahs] were donated straight from Iraq,” added Bibi. “It was supposed to go to a Shia [mosque] but we got it instead because they knew that we needed them. So, it was really disappointing because it was a donation and wasn’t even ours.”
When asked how they think the individuals responsible for the incident should be held accountable, ABSA board members said they want the individuals to apologize and for the ICUC board to pay for new turbahs.
“We do want new turbahs and we don’t think the money should come out of our own pockets,” Bibi said. “We think it should come out of ICUC’s pockets, personally. And, we just want an apology from the actual person who did it. We want him or her to know why it was wrong and to sort of fix the ‘anti-Shianess’ that they have in the back of their mind.”
Boluriaan also suggested having more events to spread awareness of Shi’ism and Sunni Islam.
“I think the first step would be for [ICUC] to be more open to us having events that talk more about the whole Shia-Sunni divide, just to educate people,” Boluriaan said. “I think the main issue that caused all this is that people aren’t even aware of what Shi’ism is. They have all these ideas about what it is, but it’s completely inaccurate. So, I think that educating people is the biggest step we want to take this semester.”
Just a few days following the incident at ICUC, the turbahs placed in the wellness and meditation space at the library were also taken away.
According to ABSA, library security and the UConn police department are investigating the issue.
MSA released a second statement Tuesday evening in regard to the turbahs being taken from the library.
“This type of behavior is unacceptable and goes against the Islamic and moral principles of the MSA,” read Tuesday’s statement. “We are upset to see that for the second time the property of Shia students was mistreated … if it’s found that a member of the MSA is responsible for this, there will be serious consequences.”
ABSA has since reached out to the university’s administration and expects to meet with Associate Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Eleanor JB Daugherty, according to Bibi.
“People think that we’re a whole different religion,” Boluriaan said. “They don’t understand that we all have the same intention … they just have to be more educated about what we’re doing … In the end, the ICUC is not a Sunni mosque. It’s just a mosque for all our students, so we should all be able to pray how we want in the [mosque].”